Global fixer of corrupt energy deals sentenced to one year in US prison

A British-Iranian consultant whose firm arranged billions of dollars in corrupt energy deals was sentenced to just over a year in prison in the United States on Monday, partly ending a bribery scandal that has strained US-UK relations and tarnished the UK Serious Fraud Office.

Saman Ahsani, who helped run Monaco-based Unaoil, was at the heart of a sprawling empire of repairers and middlemen who paid bribes on behalf of companies such as Rolls-Royce and the British group of Petrofac oil services.

US prosecutors told a sentencing hearing in Houston that Ahsani was a crucial player in a ‘pervasive and far-reaching criminal enterprise’ that had ‘lined the pockets of corrupt government officials’ around the world. . But they added that he had been very cooperative and had been an “open book”.

The Unaoil scandal broke in 2016 and laid bare the criminal underside of the global energy market, highlighting the role of Western companies in corruption cases in countries like Iraq, Kazakhstan and Libya.

Ahsani was Unaoil’s chief operating officer, a role in which he greased the wheels of corruption in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia by helping clients win oil and gas-related contracts. gas by paying bribes to government officials.

Federal prosecutors said on Monday that Unaoil’s actions were at the “cost of citizens whose countries have been destabilized by this corruption”, pointing out that the bribes in which Ahsani participated had been significant.

“He did it over and over again for years, country after country and deal after deal,” prosecutors said, adding that Ahsani even “personally negotiated and paid bribes in Libya.”

The US Department of Justice had requested a 15-month sentence, a recommendation that took into account Ahsani’s cooperation, the court heard. He will serve 12 months and a day in a minimum-security prison and pay a $1.5 million fine.

The 49-year-old, an Oxford graduate, pleaded guilty in the United States in 2019 with his brother Cyrus under a cooperation agreement. He had sought to avoid prison with a sentence of probation.

Dressed in a dark blue suit and accompanied by a trio of lawyers, Saman Ahsani appeared in court on Monday and told Judge Andrew Hanen he had ‘made a very bad life choice’ but had sought to redeem himself by helping the US investigation into Unaoil. He said he “took a lot of risks to help the United States.”

Saman Ahsani was originally detained in Italy in 2018 under a European arrest warrant, after the OFS attempted to extradite him. Unbeknownst to the UK anti-corruption agency, US prosecutors were also in talks with Saman to strike a deal. They succeeded in extraditing him to the United States, triggering a diplomatic crisis. Both brothers have been out on bail since their guilty plea in 2019. The fight between US and UK authorities over who would prosecute the couple has caused a rift between the countries and spoiled the tenure of SFO director Lisa Osofsky.

Last year, a report commissioned by the British government criticized Osofsky for her contacts with an Ahsani representative who sought to influence the case, and partly blamed her for the failings that led to the cancellation of three others. UK based Unaoil convictions.

The sentencing hearing follows years of delay in a case shrouded in obscurity. The Ahsanis’ pleas in 2019 were kept secret and the redacted court records were only later unsealed after the Financial Times, The Guardian and Global Investigations Review – represented by the Journalists Committee for Press Freedom – came to light. occurred in 2020 before sentencing then – scheduled for October this year.

Ahead of Monday’s hearing, Saman Ahsani and US prosecutors filed secret sentencing recommendations which remain sealed. As part of the plea deal, the Justice Department had agreed not to oppose certain clemency requests. Saman faces a maximum of five years in prison. Cyrus is expected to be sentenced later this year.

Unaoil was an Ahsani family business, with Saman joining in 2003. The consultancy operated through a sophisticated network of subsidiaries and affiliates and helped large corporations win contracts in wealthy countries. oil and gas.

The group claimed its ways were legitimate, involving hard-won connections and acquaintances, but Unaoil also paid millions of dollars in bribes to well-placed officials and helped rig auctions. The funds were funneled through shell companies and disguised as consultancy contracts for sale or payment for “engineering” services. Information about Unaoil’s corruption first came to light in 2016 with leaked documents to Australian outlet The Age, which dubbed the consultancy “the company that bribed the world”.

Unaoil paid bribes on behalf of 27 companies, including SBM Offshore and Rolls-Royce, according to US charges which the Ahsanis admitted. The charges detail how the brothers destroyed incriminating documents, USB drives and paper trails to cover up their corruption after he came to light in 2016. On Monday, Saman’s attorney Paul Coggins said he kept copies key records that had been destroyed and provided them to US prosecutors.

The consultancy’s conduct spawned a series of corruption probes around the world and put British and US authorities on a collision course over who would take out the kingpins. The clash was ultimately won by the United States, which viewed the Ahsanis as highly valuable witnesses who could unlock further cases against their corporate clients.

The fight led to unusual clashes between US and UK officials, with the DoJ in July 2018 sending the SFO a formal complaint from Ahsanis against the SFO’s lead lawyer in the case. The attorney, Tom Martin, was suspended and then fired by the SFO for swearing at an FBI agent two years earlier, but an employment tribunal found he was wrongfully fired. The court found that the DoJ and the Ahsanis wanted Martin “removed in order to avoid difficulties with their common wish to have [Saman] Ahsani extradited to the United States”.

Osofsky, a former FBI director named head of Britain’s SFO in August 2018, was also drawn into the scandal over her personal contacts with Ahsanis representative David Tinsley, who helped broker the plea deal. American.

Tinsley, a former Drug Enforcement Agency official, had offered to persuade a former Unaoil executive and business partner to plead guilty in the UK in exchange for the SFO dropping its case against the Ahsanis. The SFO eventually dropped its pursuit of Cyrus and Saman after reaching a settlement with the DoJ. Three former executives convicted in the UK following the Unaoil inquiry have had their convictions overturned on appeal, in part because of Tinsley’s role in the wider case.

Osofsky said the government-commissioned review of the case was “sobering reading for anyone who believes in the mission and purpose of the SFO” and added that implementing a series of recommendations to improve the office was “our most pressing priority”.

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